‘No problem!’

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no problem
Simple in design, beautiful in application, and not an energy hog.
Image courtesy: Priyadarshini Ravichandran for Kyobi.blog

I come from a family with a generation of engineers. My father and his brother went to one of the best engineering colleges in India that is reputed worldwide (The Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay). Engineering was a discipline of choice for an India that was rapidly seeking industrialisation after a long and oppressive colonial rule—we considered it sensible to make up for lost time and lost opportunity by emulating our oppressors. The world was moving rapidly in a certain direction and free India, powered by its engineers, was ready to move along.

The engineers in my family, however, made a transition into business or the academics, and eventually into the arts. Their training in linear thinking offered them a certain rigour that enabled deep mining of information to be expressed through their chosen field of art. Their choices and the application of their training has given me a glimpse into both worlds—the world of the logical and the world of the intuitive. 

I am starting to learn that both mental applications (linear and non-linear or logical and intuitive) need to coalesce to create beautiful solutions that fit naturally into the intricate web of creativity so as not to break or destroy the delicate strings that run through and from species to fossils, fossils to minerals, minerals to rocks, with water beneath, around, and within.

When a child with impaired vision is given a ball with bearings that create sound to indicate movement and direction, allowing the child use of auditory senses to enjoy a game, design and engineering does not alter reality, it accepts the problem and makes it a little easier to live with. 

Visually impaired child with a sound ball.
Image courtesy: Arvind Premanand for Oscar Foundation

When a small-farmer, also a mechanical engineer, innovates to intercrop two native species of plants that sequester carbon from the air, fix nitrogen in the soil to improve soil fertility, and make for inexpensive and nutritious fodder that reduces overgrazing of already degraded land, logic and imagination co-create an improved reality to reduce the severity of a problem. 

Jose Flores Gonzalez intercropping Agave and Mesquite at his farm in Mexico.
Image courtesy: Mongabay.com

On the other hand, Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in trying to solve a pressing problem may actually leave us with a bigger problem to solve: By injecting captured atmospheric carbon deep into Earth’s core, below the volcanic/basalt rock, we will lock “forever” the excessive carbon dioxide emitted by us humans, and quite likely continue to fiddle with and alter natural systems.

We extracted carbon as oil, natural gas, and petroleum, and mined it as coal, now we plan on injecting it as liquified gas. The balance that we tipped by releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, we aspire to fix by taking it from the atmosphere and putting it back underground—A seemingly simple solution to an obvious problem; only if it were as easy…

In October 2020, while working on an initiative to introduce a respectful consumption model in clothing and textile, I spoke with an associate professor of mechanical engineering to help create a solution to plastic packaging in the clothing retail business. ‘Clothes are not perishable products; there must be a packaging solution that is natural, biodegradable, and that serves the purpose of protecting fabric during shipment. Can you help identify or develop something that meets this criteria?’ I requested. He spoke with his colleagues and got back to me, ‘We only work with composites (80% synthetic polymers, eg. plastic, and 20% natural substances). ‘Seriously! But composites are hard to recycle, aren’t they?’ I asked confused. ‘We are engineers,’ said he in reply, ‘We look at a problem and devise a solution, that’s all.’ 

This explains how we came up with recycling as a solution to our growing collection of plastic waste, except that composites are hard to strip apart and recycle. My head was filled with images of biscuit wrappers, coffee cups, milk cartons, and bags of potato chips; all packed in a range of polypropylene, polyethylene and polyvinylidene chloride or dichloride films, mixed with metal foil or wood fibre. Composites reduce the cost of packaging, they increase the shelf life of our products, but only a small part of a composite can be recycled while most of it ends up in a landfill or in the ocean.

And a bigger problem with recycling to manage waste from composites is scale; We need to scale recycling to match the current consumption and disposal of packaging, and we need fossil fuel to run recycling machinery—Fossil fuel combined with scale is where trouble began in the first place. 

A linear mind says, ‘no problem!’ and simply breaks apart the fossil fuel and scale combo.

If we decarbonise, anthropogenic (human-induced) greenhouse gas emissions become insignificant, and scale with scarcely any emissions of the harmful sort ceases to be an issue. Perfect, industry can go on as is, consumption can continue unhindered, and economies can flourish and compete. The solution—transition to renewable and clean sources of energy—is as linear as this oversimplified view of the problem. 

Sure, decarbonising will help restore balance in the atmosphere and will help save the biosphere, but what about the changes triggered by our continuous and scaled use of clean and renewable energy? Earth’s systems apart from the atmosphere and biosphere include the geosphere, hydrosphere, and cryosphere (the frozen parts of the Earth’s surface), and all five are involved in a symphony, where changes to one (piece) create changes in the entire composition. 

In this reduced view of the problem, we overlook another important fact: organic matter needs time to renew, failing which it depletes and dies before its time, dispossessing all that it interconnects with. For example, clean geothermal energy concentrations from the Earth’s core depend on radioactive decay that may take thousands of years to become significant (and part of Earth’s heat may be primordial, therefore not regenerative by nature; once depleted, it cannot be restored), Larderello, Italy, site of the world’s first electrical plant supplied by geothermal energy, has seen its steam pressure fall by more than 25% since the 1950s.

Well, this is merely an obstacle in linear thinking, isn’t it?

We can always substitute geothermal energy with hydrogen from biomass, the new star in the “Environmental Walk of Fame”, however residue, resource, and cycle of exchange need to be considered to calculate impact, resource can range from plants and algae to wood, and residue maybe methane, sulphur and other elements (I admit I need to read more on clean hydrogen, however it make take a while for us to prove that it is a panacea to our copious need for energy).

So, we leave aside clean energy and focus on renewables such as solar and hydro energy from the sun and free-flowing rivers, both of which are abundant and will not be exhausted, only harnessed, except that one of the world’s largest gravity dams for hydroelectricity, the Three Gorges Dam across the Yangtze River in China, has started to warp: the structure is bending out of shape with the push and pressure of “harnessed” water. And the increased risk of earthquakes and floods caused by damming and restricting huge quantities of water that is part of a free-flowing river system is becoming obvious.

Capturing and concentrating solar energy too comes with its own imprint on soil and weather cycles, especially when done at the scale we humans require. Our current economic engine is designed and engineered to ignore the truth in Small is Beautiful, the case for which is evident in imbalanced Earth systems that sustain all life. The 30×30 initiative by the High Ambition Coalition (HAC) is a fabulous recognition of this truth – ‘We cannot restore nature if we do not respect its cycles.’ Thank you Outrage and Optimism for your podcast on HAC.

“The illusion of unlimited powers, nourished by astonishing scientific and technological achievements, has produced the concurrent illusion of having solved the problem of production. The latter illusion is based on the failure to distinguish between income and capital where this distinction matters most. Every economist and businessman is familiar with the distinction, and applies it conscientiously and with considerable subtlety to all economic affairs – except where it really matters: namely, the irreplaceable capital which man has not made, but simply found, and without which he can do nothing.” – From Small is Beautiful, A Study of Economics as if People Mattered, by E.F. Schumacher.    

If the problem of climate change, exacerbated by greenhouse gases, is to be solved, we need to look not towards industrialised innovation but towards human-scale technologies; we need to use our brains and our ingenuity to work in congruence with nature and not against or despite it. 

The hazards that we will face over the coming years are inevitable; we cannot forcefully bring to a halt a phenomenon that has been put into motion without feeling the tension. Like a car out of control that skids even after you apply the emergency brake, the Earth’s systems will continue to go awry even if we finally get around to reducing our unconsidered use of resources. We will need to be prepared and adequately responsive. Our energy, attention, and income or investments when focused on the right measures, such as regenerative processes and restorative tech, will help us come out of a crisis that we have created. Innovation that does not respect the capital that nature has given us may not solve the problem: tinkering with natural cycles is pointless, it’s we who need to change our habits.  

“I was raised well”

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Okay, so we all need an emotional outlet. We need to be heard and acknowledged, and we need redemption. Skin or Deborah Anne Dyer OBE sings the song ‘Weak’ with all the fight and breath she can put into it, because it’s just wrong to be violated and it’s equally wrong to become a violator. Yes, we become violators…

The cycle of oppression and the fight against it continues. The British band Skunk Anansie and their vocalist Skin gave us the song ‘Weak’ back in 1995: millions sang it, and millions continue to sing it (last year the band performed for a quarter of a million people in Poland). 

Weak as I am, no tears for you
Weak as I am, no tears for you
Deep as I am, I’m no one’s fool
Weak as I am

In this tainted soul
In this weak young heart
Am I too much for you?

I was raised well
Yes, it is!
Image courtesy: Radfunds and No Means No Worldwide

I live in a country where 88 women are raped every day: what ever happened to the goddesses we celebrate with such devotion? That’s why when women tell me that India has a rich history of treating women with respect, I recoil, because I would rather not be sucked into the void of ignorance. It’s easy to speak of goddesses and cultural heritage when you haven’t experienced what so many women, girls, and babies are experiencing daily. And I am certain there are violated little boys, who don’t get covered by media reports.

I think we women need to recognise that we are not raising our boys—and our girls—well. Positive Masculinity is an essential part of the stand against sexual and gender violence. To turn the situation around, men need to learn to respect not just women, but to respect boundaries, and women too need to learn that it’s okay to have boundaries. This lesson begins with our response to our sons and our daughters, a large part of early childhood is with the mother and the other women in the house, we are teachers and nurtures, and we need to own this role: each one of those ~88 rapes puts the onus on us.  

I often wonder if a mother’s bias towards her son comes from social acceptance, deeply rooted in our subconscious, and if her own upbringing as a girl (missing in symmetry and marked by prejudice) makes her an insufficient example that the daughter emulates? This is a question for the new-gen. of mothers, who have the respect that all people deserve. We are the ones who need to take the most responsibility, because we are the ones with the privilege of social recognition and physical security. 

No means no worldwide has done a fantastic job of including positive masculinity and assertive voice in their program. The children they train in countries in Africa are learning to protect and to resist. When both boys and girls learn to maintain their personal boundaries in relationships and interactions, they will begin to learn how to be equals and friends in the true sense: it is an irrefutable necessity. Till such time, we will be fighting a losing battle, because laws can punish but they cannot alter the mental orientation that leads to crimes of sexual violence and abuse. 

The trouble with lust is its prevalence; it is as habitual as greed or anger (and as violent), and to keep it under control is a matter of developing the right habits or of developing an evolved consciousness; the latter is hard to attain, and the former is important to build: Preaching is insufficient, we need to be aware of the environment we are creating for the maturation of children.

About a month back, I watched a group of six children play tag. A young boy of about eleven, did something between a grab and a pat, where he reached for the bottom or buttock of a girl his age or slightly older—he called out, ‘You’re it,’ while doing the grab-pat—the girl ignored this intrusion and so did the other children, and they continued to play. My immediate instinct was to reprimand the boy, but because the children were so unconcerned, I watched carefully to see if he repeated the action. Thankfully, he did not, and they moved on to another game. 

What we need to ask really is, what made him cross the line without a moment of reflection? And another pertinent question is what made the girl ignore this transgression? I have never seen my nephew resort to such behaviour, and that’s not merely because he’s a “good kid.Tremendous intention has gone into his upbringing by both parents, and they illustrate through their own behaviour the behaviour expected of their children. My sister reads him stories about women heroes, and speaks to him about gender equality and women’s rights, and his elder sister (my niece) has been empowered to hold her own. She has been taught to respect her space, emotions, and her physicality. These children have had a liberal upbringing balanced synchronously by the desired yet often missing quality of responsibility. They treat others exactly the way they treat themselves, with care, affection, and respect: they are not extraordinary!

There is nothing easy about parenting, but sometimes observations from a non-parent can be as worthy as experience in helping us read the map. With this in mind, I, a non-parent, share a list of what might help parents navigate to some extent the space of behavioural development. 

  1. Be cognisant of your own habits, don’t push them on your children.
  2. Help them nourish healthy relationships with friends and relatives. Ask yourself what constitutes a healthy relationship.
  3. Draw your own boundaries with them. Do this with love, sensitivity, and understanding. You will realise that you don’t need to be a tyrant or get reactive, you simply need to be firm and compassionate.
  4. Communicate with patience and care. Be mindful of your words and explanations and the understanding you hope to elicit.
  5. Sensitise children to issues in present-day culture—gender, homosexuality, respect for life, climate emergency, ageing and disease. 
  6. Don’t overload them with gossip, chatter, and information. Let them learn through relationships. If you need to have frivolous talk about your neighbours and relatives do it away from their ears.
  7. Don’t wait for children to become teenagers, engage with them consciously from the very start.
  8. Be engaged: Carefully choose what children view and watch online. 
  9. Read to them and read with them, and read around them. Remember that we are inspired by good just as we are influenced by bad: pick and choose the books they read. 
  10. Don’t hand them a phone till they are well into their sixteenth year; comfortably settled into and at the mid-point of their adolescence. 
  11. Adolescence is a phase of transition and it’s a difficult switch to make, therefore care must be taken to help children adapt to it with love and good sense.

Please continue to add to this list and share it with thoughtfulness and goodwill, because raising a child has to do with developing the skill of parenting; if we really wish for this world to be a safer and happier place, we need to become the right kind of parents.

Condensation: a change in phase

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It hasn’t rained much this monsoon (the season when condensed water molecules, in densely packed clouds, change to water droplets). Parched lands of India wait with longing for this season. When the first droplets fall, all rejoice: the soil releases a fragrance, flowers shed the scorched dullness of a harsh summer, space suffocated by humidity finds room to breathe, the arboreal take shelter, the terrestrial adjust, and the amphibians get frisky.

Slowdown, stand still, watch, listen Image courtesy: Hindustan Times

This morning when I woke up, a heavy downpour had silenced all sound; a soothing quietude healed the ears and the mind. We need the rains, I thought, not merely so that our crop cycles can flourish, or our water supply can flow uninterrupted. We need the rains to remind us to slowdown, a word the English lexicon associates with decline, stagnation, slackness: the healthy move fast, the smart think fast, the efficient produce fast, and the prolific create fast. 

Fast is desirable—the fast car, the jet plane, the bullet train, the mechanised conveniences. We need to save time to get more things done, faster. The Shinkansen (bullet train) is a classic example of our need for speed: engineered to transport people quickly from remote regions of Japan to its financial and commercial capital, Tokyo.

The journey is not important, the interactions are inconsequential, what matters is how fast we get to the destination, and how much we can pack into one “living” day, leaving the psychiatrists to manage an isolated, disconnected, and sleep deprived population. To me this visual is a reminder of the poultry vans, filled with depressed (looking) chicken who have succumbed to their fate. 

How did we get here? In India, the means of livelihood changed significantly with the era of colonisation, especially under the British; their land tenure systems that were devised to earn disproportionately high revenues from farmers for the East India Company forced people to change how and where they lived. 

Today, we see the disenfranchisement of indigenous communities by corporate colonists, across the free world. Their right to choose how and how much of their habitable region can be restructured is being violated, reducing their voice in the political and economic landscape. This is (and has been) our fate too—the fate of the urbanised—and it shall continue to be if we allow our relationship with our current habitat to be destroyed. 

When we lose our connection with the land that feeds us and the natural systems that enable us to live healthy lives, we disembody the mind. A disembodied mind is like the mind of a depressed chicken in a coop: physical reality is so oppressive that it continues to live because it doesn’t have the tools to destroy life and perhaps neither does it have the instinct, unlike us humans who fuel violence and destruction with disembodiment; when the mind is separated from its physicality it can’t help but get destructive, ask an artist and they will tell you that they are most creative when in touch with “something” deep within—the unseen and often ignored subconscious that a disembodied mind cannot feel.

The conversation that we need to have with ourselves is not about what’s wrong with capitalism, but about what it means to be an organic, natural being, and what will it take to continue having the autonomy to live as one? 

We are too many of us, too many humans, and together we carry a weight and mass that reduces our agility: we can’t go back, but we can choose right now. Ours is the urban and semi-urban habitat, and the resources that we depend on to live should come from here, not from community forests and rural lands that are home to people who care for and rely on them. For this change to happen, we need to live an embodied existence: one that keeps the mind and body in relative harmony. 

A run on the treadmill is not the answer, neither is a stroll in the park. To live an embodied existence, we simply need to slowdown and consume less. Less electricity, less gadgets, less gasoline, less commodities, less packaging, less chatter, and less stimulation. At an interactive session on sustainability with school children, a ten-year old girl asked me: ‘Won’t people lose their jobs if we decide to buy less?’ A relevant question and an unavoidable outcome that can be mitigated. Consuming less (not the same as deprivation) is our only recourse, it will force businesses, governments, and our habits to change. But if we continue to consume the way we do, we won’t have the chance to change, even if we pleaded. P:S: The socio-economic impact of this outcome can be mitigated if funds are planned and organised, and fairly distributed to ensure people continue to earn a minimum basic income. All of us in a mid to high income bracket should agree and even push our employers to issue a pay cut to organise this fund, following the example of Millionaires for humanity.    

What if? Reimagining our world

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What if?
Reimagining a green world. Image courtesy: Priyadarshini Ravichandran for Kyobi.blog

From the natural grasslands of Scotland to medieval Europe and North America, grass and lawns have a long history that coincides with industrialisation. Rapid industrialisation caused the growth of cities which were not emblems of beauty. To make cities beautiful, British estate grounds were reimagined as parks, which were later adopted into backyard or lawn designs in suburban development. Chronologically, the lawn mower (1830) seems to have preceded the lawn and park (1850): the lawn mower made the lawn possible, and what was earlier a luxury became a common landscape feature.

The point of synthesising this information is to share that often times our lifestyle choices and consumption habits are created by industry. Highways were not constructed because road trips and weekend getaways were needed for our wellbeing, neither were they built keeping in mind a rural citizen’s need for access to urban infrastructure, such as hospitals. Highways and city or municipal roads, in all likelihood, were built to help transport minerals from mining sites to factories, goods from factories to markets, and people from homes to workplaces.  

We (customers and citizens) are not at the centre of this story—the story of development—industry and commerce is. Industrialised nations pride themselves to be developed countries, while the agrarian world is the underdeveloped or emerging component of this binary system. None want to be underdeveloped, therefore we are stuck in this pursuit of industrialisation. Perhaps, what needs to be revised is the definition of development or developed. An understandable, human view of a person who is developed is one who is mature emotionally and mentally, and is not a burden on those she relies on. She contributes positively, and is not self-absorbed, but is compassionate, caring, and inclusive.

If this is our perspective of developed or at least our starting point, then how did we fall for the economic definition that reduces development to industrialisation? That too industrialisation at scale, where to be efficient or successful we need to keep machines working at maximum capacity, stores need to sell all that is produced, and people need to keep buying to help stores sell inventory.

We are not merely consuming too much. We are producing too much, and therefore we are consuming too much, so please do not get tricked into taking complete responsibility for the problem, as a consumer. Be cognisant of the other positions that you occupy in this interconnected system.

Consider a small exercise of role play to test the contribution of the following stakeholders: Put yourself in the position of each stakeholder in the list, and use the suggested standpoint to see if you can turn around the situation illustrated below. Feel free to improvise and share your insights with the rest of us.

Situation: Each year, more than 100 billion garments are made (-for 7.9 billion people, of which at least a billion or more must be naked or semi-naked! 1.3 billion people live in multidimensional poverty – U.N Development Program

Stakeholders with suggested standpoint.

1. Governments need to revise their view of development to include ecology and welfare.
2. Economists need to view their subject not as scientific but as conceptual/theoretical
3. Investors need to stop weighing all decisions against profit and include equity (none excluded) in their calculation
4. Engineers and designers need to consider lifespan, use, and reuse of resources
5. Producers need to limit size and capacity
6. Marketers and retailers need to reimagine their roles as providers of service (to society)

If we don’t produce to reuse, then we are the problem. Electric cars are needed to cut our greenhouse gas emissions, but to make them we need to mine copper, cobalt, and other material, and when the lithium-ion battery, a component of an electric car and our mobile phone, reaches the end of its life, our capacity and ability to recycle it displays its insufficiency (According to Greenpeace, more than 12m tons of lithium-ion batteries are expected to retire between now and 2030. What then?).

Roads are built, motorbikes are sold, cars are aspired for, gasoline is needed, greenhouse gases are emitted, waste is created, solutions are needed, investments are made, manufacturing is ramped up, perishable resources are extracted, more greenhouse gases are emitted—wow, that’s a circular economy! 

I don’t mean to sound like a postmodern thinker, but really do we need solutions to an endless problem of production and consumption, or do we need a new way of thinking, living, and making? 

Money is being invested in recycling innovation but it requires time, and time is what we no longer have: This is the deciding decade for climate change, we need to halve our emissions now, because the ones to be ravaged by its effects include millions of species threatened with extinction and a few billion of us. 

The super-rich can build bunkers in New Zealand that are called survival shelters but for most of us the solution lies in choosing what and how much we consume, and thereby stepping out of the unsustainable, industrial cycle. If there were indicators to assess whether we will survive climate change then choice should get the highest weight. Let’s not hand over agency, and devalue our choice, or we will be like the Tesla Bot (a humanoid in development or not?), a new thrill or antic of a bored billionaire. 

Voices for a green future and the children interviewed inspired me to reflect, reimagine, and come up with a wish list, which I have shared below. While using chocolate to run a car may be possible but not yet feasible, and were it to be, conditions to limit over-harvesting of cacao and clearing forest land for cocoa cultivation will surely need to factor in given our track record, we can take inspiration from these children to reimagine a “climate accord.”

Wish list for citizens and planners to consider and improve, in the run up to COP26, the 26th United Nations Conference on Climate Change to be held from October 31, 2021 in Glasgow, Scotland:

  1. Let your cell phone batteries (lithium-ion battery) discharge fully before you recharge, the life of a battery is two to five years or 300 to 500 discharge and recharge cycles, whichever comes first. Read more.
  2. Stop the use of non-natural composites in packaging. Composites include more than one material, a man-made or natural component combined with a synthetic polymer. Packets of chips are an example: They are hard to recycle and their recycling releases harmful chemicals. The more we source locally, the less the need for long-life preservation.
  3. Build roads in conjunction with well planned public transport using electric-vehicles or 100% ethanol-fuelled vehicles. This will eliminate exhaust fumes and the number of batteries that need to be recycled or mined for, and urban roads will become joyful to walk or bike on. 
  4. Ask and plan for better infrastructure in rural areas. Give villages access to all necessities at local facilities. Roads that enable villagers to travel to cities or towns are options only for those that have a personal vehicle or the money to hire one during an emergency. To enable someone is to respect their reality and help enhance it.
  5. Rethink and rebuild our education system: It cannot be that villages or rural settings in India or elsewhere lack youth who can be trained to become educators, engineers, healthcare professionals and more. To underestimate their intelligence, prepare them for a biased college and university setup, and not provide adequate training and support to harness skills is a systemic shortcoming. Skill development needs to look at local problems that rural youth can solve using their training, and not at how they can contribute to the required industrial workforce.
  6. Develop highways that carry not trucks or cars but have integrated electric or ethanol-fuelled tram systems to carry produce and people, encouraging relationships through shared journeys, and cultural exchange through food and small scale goods. I like the idea of a zip line suggested by a child to the COP26 President. Maybe this is technology that we need to invest in to improve interstate travel.
  7. Redefine renewable sources of energy to include reusable technology. Not so far in the future, photovoltaic cells used in solar panels will add to the growing toxic trash that lithium-ion batteries are contributing to. We need more investment in reusable and circular design and technology, with cleaner ways to disintegrate and decompose.  

One degree. One decade

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ESG or Environmental Social Governance is the criteria used by some mutual funds and exchange traded funds to offer green options to investors. It’s what your bank will send your way, when you ask about funds that invest in clean energy and conservation. After reviewing three ESG funds, all I have to say is, ‘no thanks.’ 

ESG is primarily greenwashing, a term used for initiatives that lack environmental-integrity: They are marketed as green but they barely even make a dent in reducing carbon emissions.

CNG or Compressed Natural Gas emits only 5 to 10 percent less CO2 than gasoline or diesel, and investing in it cannot be considered green. Luxury hotels that include two-day laundry cycles instead of daily washes are not green (a study of 58 luxury hotels in Taiwan revealed that 50kg-CO2 emissions are generated for each room/night sold), and eco-brands that ship worldwide are not green either (aviation produces 74% more CO2 than road transport)—This is greenwashing! 

The presence of Oil and Gas companies in an ESG equity list highlights the lack of commitment towards decarbonisation. Maybe they need to be reminded that CO2 emissions are not green.

ESG equity selection

To be truly green we need to move away from fossil fuel; no small task this. Those who get there, live by nature’s cycles, undertake forestation, use solar, wind, or bioenergy, and make in quantities that allow time for resources to replenish – there’s a lot more complexity to this mix than apparent. A commendable example of green is Navadarshanam in Tamil Nadu, India. A land-based community that started in the 1990s on 115 acres (~46.5 hectares or 465,000 square meters) of arid land, which today, after thirty-years, is largely a healthy forest dedicated to wilderness preservation. 

Here are three important principles, amongst others, that they follow:

  1. Limiting their use of power, by way of lifestyle adaptation.
  2. Generating the little power they need using alternative technologies and traditional systems.
  3. Using minimal material and energy in their architecture design and buildings, and maintaining human scale by avoiding mechanised tools and processes.

Not all of us can do what the community at Navadarshanam has done. To step outside a fossil fuel guzzling system is unimaginable for most. And we do not have thirty-years. All we have is this decade—till 2030—to damage control, failing which, we may witness (unlikely we will survive till then) a temperature rise of 3.2°C

At the current global average warming of 1°C, we already have wildfires, drying water tables, bleached corals, and melting glaciers to reckon with.

If all anthropogenic emissions (including aerosol-related) were reduced to zero immediately, any further warming beyond the 1°C already experienced would likely be less than 0.5°C over the next two to three decades (high confidence), and likely less than 0.5°C on a century time scale (medium confidence), due to the opposing effects of different climate processes and drivers. A warming greater than 1.5°C is therefore not geophysically unavoidable: whether it will occur depends on future rates of emission reductions. 

The longer the delay in reducing CO2 emissions towards zero, the larger the likelihood of exceeding 1.5°C.

-Sixth Assessment Report, Working Group I, August 2021 IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, part of the United Nations)

You and I may not be able to influence policy, but we can support the call for change. Here are some adaptations that we can put into practice to help meet the urgent goal to reduce emissions:

  1. Sell our holdings and equity in oil, gas, and lubricant companies – it’s okay if the stock gets devalued.
  2. Reduce our use of power – Don’t turn on festive lights, keep apartment buildings dimly lit, try and install sensors in housing complexes and offices, don’t reach for the air conditioning remote, climb the stairs if possible.
  3. Use grass alternatives in the garden and the backyard – Choose those that are drought resistant and suit the local climate. Thyme, chamomile, and some variety of mint seem to be common ones. Check with a permaculture practitioner. Read some suggestions. Grass alternatives reduce our use of water and aid habitation by insects and butterflies, they may also help trap more moisture in the soil.
  4. Rewild – plant more native trees and reduce the grass in our lawns. How about a 70:30 ratio? 70 percent trees and 30 percent grass alternatives.
  5. Ask the government representative in your area to assign space in parks, and on inside roads to plant more native trees.
  6. Buy local. Buy less.
  7. Take time to book your next flight. Do it only if it’s unavoidable. 
  8. Choose circular design companies where possible – those who consider the entire cycle from resource to product (and packaging) and back to resource, taking only what can grow back, and depleting nothing. ‘From nature you can always see that something that we consider as waste is the best energy fuel for something else to grow.’ – Lakshmi Menon, designer, Kerala (India)

“To save the Polar Bears, daddy”

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To save the Polar Bears, daddy
‘To save the Polar Bears, daddy!’
Image from The Lonely Polar Bear, by Khoa Le. Image Courtesy: Amazon.com

My five-year old niece and I were reading about Polar Bears during her last visit to India in February-March 2020. It was learning hour and we were serious about it. Everyone needed to ‘be quiet!’ (as instructed by my niece in her most assertive voice) while we huddled in front of the laptop reading on Nat Geo Kids and watching short documentaries and videos. She would pick the animal, I would do the browsing and reading, and then we would have a discussion.

Polar Bears, we learned have black skin under their thick coat of fur, and their fur is not white, as we commonly assume, it’s actually transparent and hollow, and it reflects light: This natural camouflage helps them hunt while blending with their snowy, white surroundings. 

We also learned that they are classified as vulnerable, and my niece asked, ‘what does vul-(ne)-rable mean?’ I said, ‘It means they need protection and we need to help them stay safe.’ 

Her next question was: ‘Why are they not safe?’ ‘Because the ice is melting, Isabel.’ ‘Why is the ice melting?’ she asked. 

I was ready for this exchange. Isabel loves asking questions, and for good reason I don’t tire of them: I am fascinated by her curiosity, which teaches me as much as it does her.

Me: The ice is melting because the climate is changing too fast.

Isabel: Why-yyy

Me: Well, because of the way we do things.

Isabel: Who is we?

Me: All of us! 

Isabel: All the people in the world?

Me: Umm, well, almost all. Everyone who drives cars a lot, takes too many trips on the plane, and buys too many things is changing the climate.

Isabel: (Pause). Why do Polar Bears need ice?

Me: (Thankful to Nat Geo Kids for all the answers). To hunt. They are not very good swimmers; (in a hushed tone with my finger on my lip) they stand quietly on the ice and quickly grab a seal when it pops out of the sea. 

Isabel: (in the same hushed tone) Ohh. How can we keep them safe?

Me: We need to buy less things, use what we have carefully, and try and not use cars and planes as much.

Isabel: Ok-ayy. Can we play now?

Next morning, my cousin sister conveyed a message that read, Thank you, Neha. It was from Isabel’s dad. I looked at her confused. Isabel while speaking to her father on FaceTime proclaimed that she was going to ride the bicycle to school when she returned (to California). When her father asked her why she’d be doing that, she said, ‘To save the polar bears, daddy.’ 

The cause, the effect, and the solution were so clear in Isabel’s mind: Our overuse of fossil fuel has accelerated changes in climate and extreme weather events, and the way out is to stop the use of fossil fuel and choose alternative, renewable sources that are available. 

I learned quickly from Isabel, and shortly after she left in March 2020, I began defunding gradually: I pulled my money out of most fixed deposits and funds, with a request to my bank and investment manager to send me details about clean energy options. 

Nothing yet. 

At institutions and organisations, defunding and divestment requires planning and consensus, and it requires pressure from stakeholders: investors, consumers, student bodies, and every individual involved. If we pull out our funds where possible, pressure builds up. We can’t not pay taxes but we can choose our investments.  

This may not put an end to world leaders using our money to fund guns and discrimination, but it can cut funding for deforestation, coal, and oil.  

Pledging to ride the bicycle to school is essential, and the combined effect of our pledges will help, certainly. I have been taking my pledges on Count Us In. But collective pressure through defunding is imperative. All of us have a little money invested somewhere. If we don’t know where the money is going, assume it’s not going to the right place, in the context of climate change.

I am requesting campaigners and climate activists to help more of us to take the step to redirect our investments. The campaign Fossil Free is slowly becoming a force in the US and Europe, but it still needs support to come into common consciousness there and across the world.

Campaigners can use Fossil Free’s comprehensive training and resource pack to start local groups that can give the movement strength. Resource pack to start a campaign group.

If it seems like a lot of effort in addition to all else that we need to do, let’s maybe reprioritise and ask ourselves: Why is it worth the effort? And like Isabel, we too may have our own rendition or translation of ’To save the Polar Bears, daddy!’


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All / Coexistence & Harmony
Kori Gaon, Shelter
A place called home.
Photo Courtesy: Praveen Khanna and Jansatta.com

A week back, I watched Shelter, a short documentary that won the AFI DOCS award by the American Film Institute. Shelter is directed by Smriti Mundhra, a talented and sensitive woman who happens to be my cousin sister. The 35-minute documentary helps us identify with the homeless in a very human and real way.

Today, when I read the news (sadly, nothing new about it) that homes of thousands of people in Khori Gaon, in the National Capital Region of India, have been demolished without arrangements for rehabilitation, I was reminded of the children and families that the documentary followed. Once again a basic human right has been violated and this time with the blessings of India’s highest court of justice.

We have chosen rules over kindness, and apathy over love: Who will right this wrong?


Sleep outside on a cold winter night

No quilts for cover, no hearth or warmth

Stand and watch in scorching sunlight

Bricks and rubble that once were called home

No shelter for those without papers in their name

Belongings in hand they watch as their countrymen do wrong

Batons strike as they plead for relief

Life already uncertain with death and disease

Wages don’t reach

Meals are scrimped and saved

Their home the only shelter from the grief.

Child in her arms, ailing man by her side

She watches her solace crumble

Under the weight of our apathy. 

Oh, loveless world

Step outside and stand by their side

For our homes are no shelter

But a house of cards

It’s land that we live on, not in concrete 

It houses humans, bipeds, minerals, and trees

We live amongst invertebrates and amoeboid too 

None have encroached 

Except those who ignore this truth.


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All / Between the lines
Photo Courtesy: Shikha in Hanle, Ladakh, India

I wonder if I lack faith when people tell me they have put their intentions out into the universe and they believe things will manifest in the way imagined.

I also wonder if I lack confidence when people tell me that I need to know exactly what I want and go after it to make it happen. 

Between lack of faith and lack of confidence, is the place where I situate myself. In this space the universe knows (and I too cannot ignore) that I do not know how to wish and what to pursue. It does not sound particularly impressive, but it is, because between the wish and the pursuit resides awe. 

It’s where we feel dread and wonder—the feeling that diminishes our reality and assigns it magnificence at the same time. I felt it when I watched up-close a Humpback whale breach or leap out of the waters in Iceland, and when I heard the thunderous sound of an avalanche and saw snow cascade down the mountain next to where I was camping in the Himalayas at Uttarakhand in India. I also felt it numerous times this past year when I could not speed up the languid pace of monotony, as much as I tried. 

I wanted to shake off monotony and break out of its uneventful cycle, because it diminished my reality. I wondered if a caterpillar felt the same rolled up as a pupa? With no external impetus or the usual distractions of the pre-pandemic world, I had little choice but to accept monotony. Perhaps, like the caterpillar is primed from birth to become a moth or a butterfly, we too are primed to accept and observe monotony? Yet I resisted till I no longer did.

Curiously enough, my mind began observing in the uneventfulness the selfsame wonder and dread that we experience in the exhilarating. When the restlessness that had been my response started to settle, I noticed that something more lay underneath the ennui or boredom and below the thick fog of dullness: In the seemingly repetitive flow of monotony is a continuous unfolding, Life is happening to us while we are busy making other plans (paraphrased from Beautiful Boy, by John Lennon). 

Last night, I received the news about a suicide—a life had ended too soon. A sweet and gentle boy who had grown into a caring young man had missed out on the awe concealed by monotony. He may have chosen not to die had someone pointed him to it.

Learn to see is for him, and for all of us: Beyond the pursuit and the wish, awe awaits, I am pointing you to it.

Don’t wish upon the stars, little boy 

Nor aim for the stars as you were told 

Just watch and you shall see.

I will sit beside you, watching too

My presence a reminder that you’re not alone.

It’s hard to see when the lights get bright

It’s hard to see when clouds gather

When pursuits pull you

And wishes tempt

Just be still and you shall see. 

For the brook will gurgle

The breeze will flow

The whale will breach

And cascade will snow.

In this unwavering monotony: the cycle of life

We, there isn’t

I, not in the least

There is but all

One and the same.

The caterpillar is primed to be a moth or a butterfly

A pupa is a stage in-between

Don’t rush the transformation

Just hold on and you shall see

Dread when it merges with wonder

To reveal the awe that lies beneath.

Panorama: a wider view

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All / Coexistence & Harmony
Panorama: a wider view
Shoo, another word for intolerance.
Photo Credit: Priyadarshini Ravichandran for kyobi.blog

I was sitting in the balcony, having my morning coffee while I looked out at the sea; it’s what I do almost every morning, yet it is special, because the sea, birds, trees, and me are a new configuration each day. 

As I settled on my seat, a crow came and perched on the ledge. Recently, it had been coming every morning and had become an expected visitor. I had this urge to shoo it away. The cawing sound is a little loud for my auditory nerves, and in anticipation I preferred it gone. But I let it be. And it did not caw. 

What is it about us humans that we do not like occupying space with another whose form, sound, or views we dislike? Others in the animal kingdom share this response. I was reading about elephants and their complex social structures—families, bond groups, clans. Some of their decisions are based on elephant culture and resource availability, and some on individual likes and dislikes: they take sides, they display loyalty, and they seek social inclusion. What they don’t do, or cannot do, is create tools of mass destruction and they can’t use propaganda to deceive, because their reality is still closely linked to the ecological world.

The experience with the crow and its cawing helped me understand the growing intolerance in the world. It struck me then that we develop intolerance in these seemingly innocuous ways, such as waving at the crow and saying go-away, even when the crow is perched unimposingly on a ledge. While elephants may not be able to reflect on how their behaviour is shaped, we humans can, yet we overlook the little reactions that lead to big trouble.

This explanation may seem a little excessive, except that it is not. It’s a simple experience of intolerance and therefore overlooked. The manifestations of such experiences are so disturbing on the world stage that we are usually overwhelmed. Let’s take the example of what is happening in Myanmar at present, the military is shooting and killing indiscriminately, people are dying and its distressing for almost all of us. What has been happening in Palestine is as troublesome, migrants from Africa being left to die at sea is heartbreaking, the genocide at Rwanda, the Gulags and Auschwitz, and the Jallianwala Bagh massacre were no better—the list is endless. Such events seem to come in waves that submerge us, leaving us with no adequate response, merely an emotional one. 

When events coincide with emotions, we react, we do it repeatedly till we develop a certain orientation. Our orientation can be liberal or conservative, rebellious, timid, or apathetic, or it can be deluded, righteous, or naïve, influenced by our surroundings, and our upbringing and exposure. 

Events and emotions feed each other in a continuous cycle till our orientation becomes an ideology. And what do we become? We become like dogs that keep chasing the tail: in futile pursuit of an illusion. 

Is there an alternative that will allow us to see the ineffectiveness of our ‘dog chase tail game?’ Is it preposterous to think that we—you and I—people with no real influence on the world stage can alter the course of humanity? To the contrary, it would seem. But how? 

By tolerating the presence of the crow. 

Perhaps if we begin here, we will not have to reckon with world leaders who cross all lines of injustice and deception, because from amongst us rise these very forces, be they supremacist, totalitarian, or militant.  

If 7.7 billion of us tolerated the other, would it not change the course of humanity as we know it today? Even if only half that number or about 3.85 billion actually succeeded it would keep the scale from tilting. 

I, a liberal thinker, only recently realised the narrowness of my broadminded views when I understood how critical I can be of others’ views. As someone with a more inclusive mindset should I not be allowing other views to hold space? I don’t have to imbibe these views if they feel insufficient and I need not engage by being critical. As an independent yet interconnected entity, I can simply let them be. 

A point-of-view does not breach the lines of respect and tolerance, our reactions do. Our reaction to the criticism and rejection that we receive because of our views leads us to coalesce into groups that eventually lead us to war with each other—civil, cold, or nuclear is irrelevant.  

About a week back, I read a book titled, ‘Emissary of Insight’. It’s a short biography of S.N. Goenka, the teacher of Vipassana Meditation. In April 2019, The New York Times featured him in their series Overlooked No More. Goenka or Goenkaji (-ji- is a suffix used in India to convey respect) carried forward the practical and ancient method of Vipassana Meditation from the time of the most recent Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama to the inhabitants of the tech age, relaying it beyond cultures and borders to both the scientific and the religious minded.

The author, Daniel Stuart, an academic, has tried to offer a critical and impersonal view on the life and choices of S.N. Goenka, who happens to be his meditation teacher, as well as mine. In reading the book I felt that it was too narrow in interpretation and simplistic in its explanation of complex events that may have led to some of the choices made by the Vipassana teacher. So, there’s Stuart’s view of S.N. Goenka’s decisions and approach that does not fully match my view, and neither is a complete or true representation, because Goenka(ji) is not here to explain the reason behind his choices.     

Can I therefore be satisfied with the book, as a well-written biography that offers a different perspective? A mentor suggested that I give space and room to the author to express his views. The minute I did this, all criticism dropped. I felt enriched as a reader who could use their own discernment to understand what I had received from the book, or explore the topic to develop a more complete perspective, or simply put aside the book like others once read.

A view is a perspective (merely one way of looking at something), sound is a vibration, and form is light reflected; That’s all. What then is there to dislike or criticise?


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Where I can sleep under the blue sky
Where fear doesn’t chase me or pull me down
Where my heart sings with the wind
Where nature is my body
Where trees are my kin
I need not travel to get there
All I must do is let go
Maybe I can; maybe I will; someday